The Good Kind of Poking Fun

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People sometimes mistake parodies for mean-spirited attempts to do nothing other than poke fun. And yes, sure – some parodies do nothing more than point out the ridiculous or inane elements of this or that artistic form or genre. The best parodies, however, do much more.

Nimona, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic turned graphic novel, is a stellar example of a parody that does more than merely poke fun. It is, as all the best parodies are, a sly love letter to the target of those pokes. Nimona’s main target is the knight’s tale, and all of the values and themes – heroism, man-on-man combat, and good vs. evil, to name a few – that such stories so often embody.

By creating a somewhat deranged but consistently lovable antihero and turning the concepts of sworn enemies and heroism on their heads – by, basically, sending up all of the knight’s tale’s most cherished elements – Stevenson digs deep and finds the core of her story, the core of all such stories, and brings into relief the elements that aren’t at all silly, but are enduringly relevant and profoundly meaningful.

To put it simply: by relentlessly ridiculing the bad, you can better celebrate the good. This is why, in the blurbs on the backs of books – or, in the case of Nimona, in the blurb on the front of the book – you so often see the words “humor” and “heart” used together. It’s because by way of humor, the most heartfelt moments can be created. By poking fun in one breath, the most meaningful words can be said in the next.

It’s like your best friend. When he or she is being ridiculous, you’re able to point it out, and even able to point it out by having a laugh at their expense. You’re able to do this because there’s a foundation to your friendship, a strong, loving bond that cannot be broken by a single instance of (arguable) cruelty. And even if, in the moment, things are feeling a bit strained, those instances of no-holds-barred, occasionally brutal honesty will ultimately leave your bond all the stronger. You’ll call each other jerks and storm out of one another’s places, only to an hour later feel a renewed sense of love for them and respect for their place in your life.

The word parody comes from a combination of two Greek words, para and oide. Oide means “ode,” of course, but para, in this case, can mean one of two things. It can mean “counter, against” or, more simply, “beside,” a term that expresses “alteration.” And that’s the kind of parody I’m talking about, the kind of parody that Nimona is. Not a book against, but a book beside.

And that’s why Nimona can sit so nicely on your shelf next to your copies of the Arthurian legends, the same way that, say, John Dies at the End can hang with Stephen King’s best supernatural horror and that Douglas Adams’s novels can live amongst the most serious science fiction and hard-boiled detective stories. These books aren’t enemies – they’re squabbling, fun-poking, yet always-loving friends.

Reading vs. Rereading

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I just recently finished reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Or rereading, I should say, since I’d read it before. Multiple times, actually. And both as a child and an adult. But something – I’m not sure what – got me reaching for it the other day, and I’m incredibly glad I did.

There are so many books out there, another bundle each week that screams and begs to be read. (Do books not scream at you? Weird.) Some days, when the presence of all those unread – and ultimately unreadable – books feels particularly pronounced, I purposely avoid bookstores and review sites so that the crazy urge to spend my savings on books and lock myself in a room for a decade just to catch up doesn’t flare up on me.

All of which is to say that, when choosing what to read next, it often seems counterintuitive, and even unproductive, to pick a book that you’ve already read. But now and again, it should be done. And if you’re a writer, I’d even say that it must be done.

The Witches, of course, was a safe choice. It’s a quick read, for one thing, and though I probably couldn’t have recounted the plot in great detail, I knew the gist of it, and also, most importantly, knew that I’d enjoyed it immensely every time I’d read it. But going back to remember in particular what I’d found so delightful about the book as a child and what I’d found so admirable about it as an adult – it worked like a corrective. It left me feeling centered, refocused, and revitalized. As a reader, the rereading served as a sort of bridge to my old selves, letting me visit them for a bit and reminiscence. As a writer, the rereading reminded why I’m doing what I’m doing, waking up every morning and putting in hour after hour in front of a notebook or at the computer.

Stephen King once said that in order to become a better writer you must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. I agree. Profoundly. But I’d add an asterisk to that, and say that, for every few new books you read, you should go back and read an old favorite, or even one you thought was only okay. You’re bound to notice something new in it, and in seeing how far you’ve come since your original reading of the book, you can map out the journey you’ve so far taken, and make a more informed decision about where you ought to be headed next.